Editor’s Note: Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, former New York homicide prosecutor and current counsel at the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As both a prosecutor and defense attorney, I have written and reviewed many indictments. Though often brimming with legalese, they are designed by prosecutors to tell a compelling and detailed crime story. The indictment announced Friday in the Mueller investigation told just such a story – of Russian attempts to sabotage the American presidential election.
If the allegations of the indictment prove true, it seems probable that the Russians were successful in their multimillion-dollar effort to influence the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Of course the answer to this complex question will never be definitively known. Polling cannot tell us whether voters might have chosen differently if the Russian influence operation hadn’t happened.
What is known, however, is that the election was close and voter shifts in just a few significant states could have changed the Electoral College vote count in a presidential election in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.
The President, of course, has consistently been assuring the American public that the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is all about a “hoax” and that it’s a “witch hunt” largely supported by the forces of “Crooked Hillary Clinton” and the “fake news,” which can roughly be defined as any news organization that offers any coverage that reflects badly on Donald Trump.
Mueller quietly and effectively disposed of those claims in his detailed explanation of how the Russian government literally sought to hack and hijack America’s most important election by creating truly fake social media posts and protests designed to support the candidacy of Donald Trump (and in the primaries, Bernie Sanders) while sabotaging the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The indictments revealed Russia’s use of an assortment of dirty tricks in heavily funded efforts to deceive the American public.
The President responded to the Mueller indictments with a variation on his customary “hoax” claim, conceding a Russian effort to influence the American election but with a petulant hedge:
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
Translation: the President now believes that even if there was a Russian effort to influence the American election, it started in 2014 and therefore has nothing to do with him. The indictment, though, is chock-full of specific facts that the Russian efforts were all about him. More specifically: all about electing him.
The indictment notes, for instance, at paragraphs 63 and 64, that in June of 2016, the defendants and their co-conspirators sought to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment and voters by placing ads on Facebook promoting a “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” rally. They carefully used some of their millions in July of that year to produce a poster embossed with a quote they falsely attributed to Hillary Clinton, “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.” The phony quote was in wide circulation during the presidential campaign.
What was Trump saying in July of 2016? He was sending a shocking plea to the Russians by publicly saying about Hillary Clinton’s emails:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Paragraph 34 of the indictment notes:
“Defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. ORGANIZATION-controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including ‘Secured Borders’); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including ‘Blacktivist’); religion (with group names including ‘United Muslims of America’ and ‘Army of Jesus’) ….. By 2016, the size of many ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.”
Paragraph 46 says:
“In or around the latter half of 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through their ORGANIZATION-controlled personas, began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.
“a. On or about October 16, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the ORGANIZATION-controlled Instagram account ‘Woke Blacks’ to post the following message: [A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.
b. On or about November 3, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators purchased an advertisement to promote a post on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Instagram account ‘Blacktivist’ that read in part: ‘Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”
Regarding the President’s claim that the “results of the election were not impacted,” there has never been an iota of proof that this claim is true.
The fact that Vice President Mike Pence and some of the Trump-controlled agencies of the federal government have said there’s no evidence that the Russian interference influenced the election is meaningless. In fact, no comprehensive, objective study of the topic has been conducted to date. That is, until now.
Friday’s indictments strongly suggest that the millions of Russian rubles spent to support and give credibility to Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-black activist themes had to have had an impact in such an extremely close presidential election. After all, Trump adopted these very themes because he thought they would help him win the election. When the Russians, pretending to be Americans, funded Hillary Clinton opposition groups using Trump-manufactured “Make America Great Again” themes, the President says, “No impact.” Who is he kidding?
Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes but he was carried into office as a result of winning a majority in the Electoral College. The Electoral College results were: Trump 306 to Clinton’s 232, or a margin of 74 votes (excluding several electors who failed to vote as their states dictated).
The indictment suggests the Russians had their eye on “purple” states including Florida, which went for Trump, giving him 29 electoral votes. Trump won by razor-thin margins in Pennsylvania with 20 electoral votes, Michigan with 16 and Wisconsin with 10. A shift of a mere 38 electoral votes from some combination of states and Hillary is president.
Given what the indictments reveal, there is a strong probability that Russia’s surreptitious and illegal support handed Trump the presidency.
But there is good news for the President: He wasn’t indicted, nor were any of the “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign” who cooperated with the Russian operatives in sabotaging the American election (indictment, paragraph 6). At least not yet.
And about that favorite presidential mantra, “no proof of collusion,” the indictment actually suggests that there was possible collusion but of an “unwitting” and therefore non-criminal nature – at least according to what we know so far.
We will not know for sure until Mueller finally concludes his ongoing investigation – including the part the President probably really fears, the part that might focus on the Trump Organization.